President Muhammadu Buhari’s threat this week to deal severely with youths from a section of Nigeria demanding justice for their geopolitical zone is reminiscent of his efforts as a command combatant in the Nigerian Civil War and his repressive laws as a military head of state.
By Chudi Okoye
He may have become physically infirm and mentally debilitated, but Rtd. Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, even as the “democratically” elected president of Nigeria, seems to retain vestiges of the old habits which he displayed as Nigeria’s military head of state from December 31, 1983 to August 27, 1985. He remains today as grouchy as he was then, and much more parochial in temperament, it seems. Age has hardly mellowed the man.
This week, whilst addressing members of the Independent National Electoral Commission who had called on him in his Abuja lair in Nigeria’s capital city, Buhari, with a combustible demeanor and a bespectacled glint suggesting incandescent rage, seemingly went off script to inveigh against restive youths in a certain part of Nigeria who he said were destroying government property and creating general insecurity. Buhari invoked the ominous memory of the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War, in which he had fought as a command combatant against the native region of those youths against whom he was fulminating, threatening to teach the froward youths a lesson they would understand.
The regional specificity of Buhari’s fulmination seems to be a clear indication that he is far more niggled or unsettled by the sporadic but growing outrages in the south-eastern part of Nigeria than he is by the rampant and arguably more sinister banditry, kidnapping and terrorism carried out by well-armed militias operating in his native northern Nigeria. He would cuddle the northern bandits wielding military-grade weapons, seeking to “rehabilitate” them, but he’s reading the riot act to an inchoate rabble of restive youths in the South East thought to be responsible for the flashes in the southern region.
In a Twitter posting on June 1, Buhari repeated the threat, saying those destroying “critical national infrastructure” and who wanted his “administration to fail” would “soon have the shock of their lives.” His Twitter posting was similar to what he said in his meeting with INEC:
“Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”
Following a widespread condemnation of this overt threat and rather unpresidential vituperation, the administrators of the Twitter platform decided to remove President Buhari’s post. Predictably, only days after Twitter removed the offending presidential tweet, a twit representing the presidency, information minister Lai Mohammed, announced that the government of Nigeria would suspend Twitter operations in the country, citing as reason “the persistent use of the platform for activities… capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” The statement either contradicted or indicted itself by being issued on the very Twitter platform it was condemning!
Twitter and the Nigerian government under Mohammadu Buhari had been at loggerheads for quite a while. As the BBC reports, there had been a latent desire to regulate Nigeria’s access to social media in general and to Twitter in particular ever since the administration’s inception in 2015. From the role played by Twitter in enabling the #EndSars anti-police brutality protests which roiled Nigeria in 2020, to Twitter’s apparent snub of Nigeria by choosing Ghana as the location for its African headquarters, the administration had been spoiling for a showdown with the social media giant. Deleting the president’s tweet was, presumably, the final straw.
As of Saturday June 5, just days after the outrage from Lai Mohammed, there was reported Twitter outage on the platforms of Nigeria’s largest mobile networks, MTN and Airtel, as well as others. Apparently the Nigerian authorities are following through on their threat. But it is uncertain if the government can sustain the proscription, not least given the potential for a workaround through a VPN (Virtual Private Network) access to the Twitter platform. Such alternatives are already circulating in social media among Nigerians intent on defying the government. A VPN connection would make it appear as if the user is accessing the Internet and Twitter from another country. It has been used by defiant citizens to get round similar bans in other countries.
All the same, the Nigerian authorities are now putting in place the legal instrument to criminalize Twitter usage in the country. On Saturday June 5, as Twitter outage began to be experienced on Nigeria’s mobile networks, the country’s attorney general and minister of justice, Abubakar Malami, issued a directive declaring that Twitter usage in Nigeria had become an offense punishable by law. A statement signed and released by the attorney general’s spokesman indicated that Nigeria’s top law officer had “directed the Director of Public Prosecution of the Federation (DPPF)…to swing into action and commence in earnest the process of prosecution of violators of the Federal Government De-activation of operations of Twitter in Nigeria.” The attorney general further instructed the country’s communications regulator (National Communications Commission) as well as the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy to work with prosecutors “to ensure the speedy prosecution of offenders.”
The attorney general claimed that Nigeria’s laws do not guarantee absolute freedom of thought, expression, or privacy, a highly restrictive interpretation of the Nigerian constitution. “Every freedom has certain responsibilities,” he said. “No freedom is absolute. Those who are apprehended will get to know what sort of prosecution awaits them.” The attorney general amplified the theory, earlier advanced by the information minister, that Nigerians using Twitter to press for political reform are not law-abiding citizens. “How do you call them law-abiding when they violate laws… when they want to create havoc, create issues of sedition, felony and are inciting hatred among Nigerians?”
As the Twitter kerfuffle escalates, it evokes memories of Buhari’s role in the Nigerian Civil War and his effort, as a participant in the succession of military dictatorships that ruled Nigeria after the war, to stifle public opinion and political dissent.
Buhari’s Civil War Antecedents
The furious glint in Buhari’s eyes and the venom in his voice as he inveighed against the restive youths of the South East immediately recalled his role in the Nigerian Civil War. Lieutenant Buhari, as he was then, along with other young officers from northern Nigeria, played an active role in the July 1966 counter-coup which ousted Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi, the Igbo who had assumed power as military head of state after putting down the January 1966 coup. That earlier putsch sacked the First Republic government of Nigeria, and claimed the lives of the prime minister Sir Tafawa Balewa, a northerner, and Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and powerful premier of the northern region.
As the Nigerian Civil War ensued, the 24-year old Buhari was assigned to the 1st Division under the command of Lt. Col Mohammed Shuwa, which was moved from Kaduna to be stationed for a while at Makurdi. Buhari was initially assigned to the role of Adjutant and Company Commander in the 2 battalion unit of the Second Sector Infantry of Shuwa’s 1st Division. Buhari’s 2 battalion was among the first units to see action in the war, setting off south through Gboko into the town of Gakem and moving towards Ogoja, with heavy artillery support from Gado Nasko and his squad. The troop captured Ogoja and prepared to advance towards Enugu, at the time the Biafran capital. For a while, Buhari was the Commander of the 2 battalion, pushing southwestwards through Abakaliki and Nkalagu to join other Nigerian forces in the bid to take Enugu.
There was much resistance on that flank, however. Before the push into Enugu, Buhari was re-posted to Nsukka as Brigade Major in the Nigerian Army’s 3rd Infantry Brigade, led for a while by Joshua Gin who was later replaced by Isa Bukar. Buhari stayed with this regiment for a few months. In 1968, he was re-assigned to the so-called Awka sector (4 Sector) which was later tasked with capturing Onitsha. This sector operated along the Awka-Abagana-Onitsha region, a critical Biafran axis for food supply. Buhari’s sector suffered a lot of casualties as it attempted to disrupt the Biafran food supply route along the Oji River and Abagana axis.
After the war, of course, Buhari went on to bigger and better things, notably helping to sack the regime of Gen. Yakubu Gowon in a 1975 coup, with Gen. Murtala Mohammed emerging as military head of state. He became military governor of North-Eastern State (and later of Borno State) following the coup. Buhari also acceded to the role of federal commissioner of petroleum and natural resources under the regime of Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo which emerged after the assassination of Murtala Mohammed in February 1976. He also assumed chairmanship of the Nigerian National Petroleum Commission (NNPC). He became Military Secretary at the Army Headquarters and a member of the Supreme Military Council from 1978 to 1979, and then later General Officer Commanding (GOC), Third Armoured Division of Jos, a position from which he helped to launch the New Year’s eve coup, in December 1983, which terminated Nigeria’s misbegotten 2nd Republic barely four years after it came into existence. He would become the menacing head of state who ruled Nigeria with iron fist from December 1983 until August 1985.
In that 20-month reign of terror, Buhari gave Nigeria, among other things, the nefarious Decree No. 2 (1984) and Decree No. 4 (1984), two of the most repressive laws ever enacted in Nigeria.
Buhari’s Decree 2 gave the chief of staff, Supreme Headquarters (then the forbidding Brig. Gen. Tunde Idiagbon) the power to detain for up to six months without trial anyone considered to be a security risk to the Nigerian state. The law also gave the state security agency, the National Security Organization (NSO), unprecedented powers to detain, without charges, any individual considered to be a security risk. The agency used its enormous powers to crack down on public dissent – intimidating, harassing and jailing individuals who allegedly broke the law. Special military tribunals were set up to try any breaches, with the tribunals increasingly replacing law courts in the administration of law. The decree imposed a ban on strikes and demonstrations of any sort. Hundreds of politicians, officials and businessmen were rounded up and thrown into jail for corruption. Some of these apprehensions were deserved, no question, given the excesses of the 2nd Republic politicians. But others – like the internment of the musician and activist Fela Kuti along with other government critics – were questionable. In any case, due process of law was completely abandoned.
There is an echo of Decree 2 of 1984 in Buhari’s recent threat to deal severely with Igbo youths. These youths might be merely acting out in frustration against the evident marginalization and persecution of their region by a seemingly vindictive old warrior who vowed to penalize a geopolitical zone that dared to deny him its majority vote in his civilian bid for power. To Buhari, as indicated by his information minister, this constitutes a threat to the Nigerian state. It is not the perceived injustice but the reaction to it that is deemed threatful to Nigeria’s corporate existence. Talk about the inversion of logic.
On the other hand, Buhari’s attempt to muscle Twitter is reminiscent of his Decree 4, issued on April 17, 1984 – that is, just over three months after sacking the civilian administration of President Shehu Shagari. Decree 4 was nothing short of a cynical and draconian clampdown on free speech. The decree forbade journalists from reporting any information whatsoever that was deemed by government to be “false” or which, even if true, brought government officials into ridicule or disrepute. According to Section 1 of Decree 4, “Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement […] which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offense under this Decree.” What is more, Decree 4 was made retroactive, which meant that journalists would be liable for whatever they had written or broadcast even before the decree was issued, as well of course as after it was.
The law also stated that journalists and publishers who were found to be in breach would be tried by a military tribunal whose ruling would be final and could not be appealed. Penalty was a jail sentence of up to two years and a fine not less than ₦10,000 (consider that in 1984, ₦1 was $0.765, meaning, by my rough calculation, that the fine was the equivalent of ₦6.5m today).
We all probably remember the case of the two journalists, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, who were jailed under Decree 4. They were working for The Guardian newspaper which had been established only the year before. Tunde Thompson, the newspaper’s diplomatic correspondent, was detained after the paper published his story providing an outline of the government’s plan to overhaul the Foreign Service. Several of the changes reported by Mr. Thompson were later introduced by the government which nonetheless persecuted the reporter and his newspaper.
Several other journalists were also caught in the wide net cast by the nefarious decree. For instance, over at The Statesman, a newspaper based in Imo state, an article was published asking why the Buhari regime would imprison former Vice President Alex Ekwueme, an Igbo, a man who was not known for personal corruption, while his president, Shehu Shagari, the northerner who presided over the rogue 2nd Republic, was allowed to remain under house arrest. The Statesman article hinted at a possible tribal discrimination. For the affront, The Statesman was shuttered for two months (at a huge economic loss for any print newspaper), while its editor and the two reporters who wrote the article were dismissed.
There were many others that fell prey to Buhari’s media restriction law. Ultimately, the draconian law proved to be one of the reasons why the Buhari regime itself was overthrown in a palace coup led by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and others, in August 1985.
By his actions this week, threatening Igbo youths who are merely agitating for justice, and suspending Twitter for daring to expunge his malicious message from its platform, a rattled and seemingly embittered Buhari, contemplating the utter shambles and the reign of error that is his presidency, may be reviving his old draconian habits.
He may not get federal lawmakers to enact any repressive laws, although who can say with the ineffectual and inattentive posse of legislative grabbers milling around the seedy labyrinths of the presidency seeking personal favors. But certainly Buhari has enough latitude of power, or at least he can lay claim to such, to undertake a chilling regime of repressive action to quell an increasingly restive republic. It will be up to us as vigilant citizens, jealous of our rights, to stand up to potential tyranny, whatever our station, vocation or location.
This article was updated on Sunday June 6, following news about the Nigerian government’s criminalization of Twitter usage.